I posted this every August 26 for several years to commemorate the passing of my brother Michael. Although it has been twenty-three years, losing Michael has been a life-long emptiness that all who knew and loved Michael have endured.
A few years ago, I stopped commemorating his death and concentrated on remembering his life. So, August 23, his birthday, became a focal point.
This year I decided to tell this story once again because it gave me hope at a time when the sting of his death still gripped me as it had on the day he died. I always find it a nice way to remember Mike.
AUGUST 26, 1998
August 26, 1998, ended one of my most distressing years. It was a distressing year for everyone in my family. It was, in fact, a distressing year for anyone who knew my brother Mike. On August 26, 1997, we lost my brother, and it seemed I relived that loss every day of the year that followed, his wife and sons and daughter in law, even more so. But on the first anniversary of his death, something happened to make me smile and shake my head, and things began to get better.
To set the mood for what will follow, I must go back to the day of his funeral mass. For some reason, I felt that I had to give the eulogy. Although some of you may not believe it, I was never comfortable getting up and talking in front of a crowd. Certainly, the prospect of giving my brother’s eulogy was not something I had wanted to do, but I felt compelled to say goodbye and to represent everyone who loved him.
One of the things that struck during the days and nights of his wake was the huge turnout of people who came to pay their respect. They were waiting outside on Castle Hill Avenue for over an hour to get into the funeral parlor. My friend Paul asked if Mike had been a Pope. There were so many people there that it was hard to grieve. The crowd overwhelmed us and just made us realize that Mike wasn’t just special to his family, but he was beloved to all who came in contact with him. It reminded me of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, I used that in my eulogy.
I also quoted a line from the Wizard of Oz. I said, “In The Wizard Of Oz, the Wizard tells the Tin Man that a heart is judged not by how much you love but by how much you are loved by others. Mike had a magnificent heart.”
Many of you know that I love Lionel trains and have a considerable collection. I blame Mike for this. He had me loving Lionel trains just like he had me loving Mickey Mantle and the Yankees and Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Sometimes Mike made mistakes, but we always loved our Jets.
A few years before he died, I told Mike that I saw a beautiful Santa Fe locomotive. Unbeknownst to me the next day, he went to the train store. He called me when he got home and said that he saw the engine and put $50 on deposit for me. He said, “You just have to get it.” From time to time, when I am searching on eBay, I still hear that voice. Back to1998.
I started my day on August 26, 1998, like I did most days. I called Margaret, Mike’s wife, and we talked and cried like we did every other day, and we both said that it felt like twenty years or just last week that Mike left us. I then went about my work and had a typical day talking to students and pushing paper. Then before I knew it, lunchtime had arrived. I always do the New York Times crossword puzzle at lunchtime, and this day was no exception.
I started the puzzle and was going along pretty well for a Wednesday when I came to a clue that had me smiling and shaking my head. “Name of Famous Train,” six letters. It was amazing because the answer was “Lionel”!
I immediately called Margaret and told her of this remarkable coincidence. She said, “He’s watching you, Jimmy.”
I continued the puzzle, and then a clue or two later came upon “Eulogizes.” The answer was “Lauds.” I gave his eulogy! Can you believe this? Now, it was getting freaky. I called Margaret again, and she was amazed.
Now, this was one of those puzzles that had a clue for an answer that spanned the entire puzzle going across. I’m not too fond of those because it’s usually something I am not familiar with like Greek Mythology. I couldn’t avoid it any longer, so I read the clue. “Frequently aired movie.” I was hyperventilating. I was sure it was It’s A Wonderful Life”. It wasn’t, and I was kind of upset. It would have made a nice trifecta and a great story. But then I had another thought.
Sure enough, “The Wizard Of Oz” was the correct answer. Mike was there, and he was messing with my head. I called Margaret, and we were both speechless, but we knew what we felt was true. Mike was with us.
That puzzle was sacred to me, and I stopped doing it upon entering The Wizard Of Oz. I never went back to it. I put it in my bag and there it remained until the summer of 2002.
We were getting rid of our van, and as I was cleaning out the back seat, I came across my bag. I took it out and reviewed its contents, and saw the puzzle. I began telling a neighbor the story of the puzzle, just as I have outlined it here for you. I added that I never went back to the puzzle, and as I said this, I happened upon another clue. “Brooklyn Sch.” The answer to this, as those of you who do the puzzle, should already know because it is a repeater like Bobby Orr, is “LIU.” One of the campuses of LIU was Southampton College, where I had just recently started working.
Believe what you want, but no agnostic, atheist or whatever nonbeliever can ever convince me that this life is all that there is. The puzzle of life and death has, for me, been solved by another puzzle, and while I got neither a job nor my faith through the New York Times, I sure got a strong editorial in its support that only the clueless would deny.